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NY senators elect first African-American woman as majority leader

Karen Dewitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent

The New York State Senate made history on two fronts Monday, as it elected Andrea Stewart-Cousins to be the first woman and the first African-American woman to head the chamber in January.

Stewart-Cousins, who has led the Democrats in the Senate since 2012, is poised to become the Senate’s next majority party leader after Democrats won 40 seats in November’s elections. She was a teacher and a journalist before being elected to represent Yonkers in the Westchester County Legislature.

Stewart-Cousins, who won her Senate seat over a decade ago, took a moment to reflect on the big changes her selection represents.

“This is an incredibly proud moment for me,” she said. “It is a moment that I don’t believe, certainly when I came here, I would have ever dreamt of.”  

Stewart-Cousins said among the top priorities for the Senate Democrats will be enacting the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York law, strengthening gun control laws and instituting early voting in New York.

She will preside over a diverse conference. Some are insurgent Democrats who beat six of eight former breakaway Democrats in September’s primary and seek single-payer health care for New York and significantly more spending on public schools.

Other new senators, elected in November, represent Long Island and the Hudson Valley, where property taxes are a concern and who may want to hold the line on any new major spending programs.

But Stewart-Cousins said she expects consensus will come.

“I don’t think it’s a collision,” she said.

She said she wants first to sit down and talk about all of the issues with her 15 new members.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, is now one of the more senior senators in the Democratic conference. He said he thinks the Democrats can come up with a plan that includes funding for schools and health care without greatly increasing taxes.

“I hope what we see in a newly led conference is a much more deliberative body,” Hoylman said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are down to just 23 members and will have far less power than they had when they controlled the chamber.

Senate Minority Leader-elect John Flanagan said he and the other Republicans will do their best to draw attention to issues and legislation that they disagree with.

“I’m scared to death about what’s coming,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan, speaking on Nov. 16 after he was re-elected as GOP leader, predicted that a bill to enact single-payer health care in New York would “bankrupt the state.” He said raising taxes on the wealthy would cause more people to leave New York.

In a statement after Stewart-Cousins’ election, Flanagan called the Democratic leader a “class act” and a “truly extraordinary person” and said he hopes they can work together.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who helped in 2018 to get more Democrats elected to the Senate, said he wants to work with her and the Senate Democrats to “stand up to the extreme conservative agenda” in Washington.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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